Hair Apparent: False Hair Caps and the Mysterious World of 19th-Century Hair Anxiety

Winterthur's hair cap, in all its strange glory. 1830-1855, 2004.25.

I have a reputation for loving the stranger objects at Winterthur. Ask me what I like and I’ll usually respond, “The high style Philadelphia furniture is impressive, but did you see the glass fly trap on the second floor? It’s amazing.” So it should come as no surprise that one of my favorite objects in the collection is one that has only been on view once and might never again leave storage. And what might it be? Why, a false hair cap, of course!

The back of the false hair cap illustrates the looped construction of the "scalp" and the three ringlets on either side.

A false hair cap is a head covering meant to imitate the look of human hair, and if you don’t recognize the term, don’t worry; we made it up. Hair enhancements are nothing new—the 18th and 19th centuries were marked by people wearing wigs and hair pieces to replace or augment their own hair.  Wigs were almost always made of human hair, however, while the false hair cap is made of dark brown silk thread masquerading as human hair. Silk threads are twisted together to imitate human hair and then manipulated into a “fabric” of interconnected loops that formed the cap, following the lines of the wearer’s head. The front of the cap would have framed the wearer’s face, dipping down on the sides to cover her ears and form two sets of three ringlets. As far as objects go, this one is pretty obscure—we’ve only ever heard of three similar objects in other museums and don’t have any historical records for them.

So why would a woman want fake hair? The answer to that question lies in the fascinating world of 19th-century hair anxiety.

An article in an 1854 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book articulates the fear of women losing their hair. Entitled “Caps, Headdresses, etc,” it reads:

When the gift of luxuriant hair is passing away, and what once was a pleasure becomes an unsatisfactory task; when no parting, or brushing, or curling will conceal the deficiency, and one is obliged to decide between the two evils—false hair or caps!—forgive our sex if we do so with a troubled and dejected spirit, nor be it all set down to a weak personal vanity by those who have never been so tried.

"Caps, Headdreses, etc." Godey's Lady's Book, August 1854.

The article goes on to sum up  the pain of hair loss: “No one, until they themselves have suffered it, can understand the mortification with which one resigns one’s self to the necessity of wearing caps… if there be pangs of vanity, there is also vexation of spirit.”

Not only was female hair loss an embarrassment, many saw it as a symptom of “unseemly activity.” Describing the difference between male and female hair loss, a Godey’s article titled “Diseases of the Hair and Directions for its Management” claims, “The hair of men more commonly falls off than that of women; and they become bald from the greater excitement of the brain which their pursuits occasion.”

But if baldness was associated with intellectual pursuits and thus more suited to men, how did women lose their hair? By experimenting with intellectualism, of course. “Bald women are scarcely ever seen; nevertheless, some ladies who follow the pursuits of literature are obliged to cover their baldness with headdresses of hair prepared by the coiffure.” (Given how hard my classmates and I study, I guess we should be happy to have hair at all.) A woman suffering from hair loss did not just have to contend with her altered appearance; she also endured a reputation as an uppity bluestocking.

One of the many confusing aspects of the cap is the woven construction of the “scalp.”  While a wig would fully cover a woman’s head, the looped construction of the hair cap leaves space for whatever is beneath it to show through.  This must mean that the wearer wasn’t entirely bald. Women who lost all their hair might use a full wig, but women who

A fashion plate from Godey's Lady's Book shows how a full head of hair was necessary even under fabric caps. The false hair cap might have worked under fabric caps such as this one, providing a woman with extra volume and curls. Godey's Lady's Book, January 1853.

had some hair but contended with thinning or patchy follicles might have used some kind of smaller hair piece such as a scalpette or frizette.  The false hair cap probably served a similar purpose.  While not full enough to replace an entire head of hair, the loops that formed the “scalp” served to cover limited hair loss, while the ringlets at the neck added stylish volume for hair too short, brittle, or thin to curl into the popular styles of the day.  Popular hair styles in the mid 19th century required ringlets peaking coyly out from beneath fabric caps and bonnets, and the false hair cap could provide those curls for women who lacked them naturally.

You might be wondering when I’m going to explain why the cap was made of thread and not hair.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  We don’t know why the hair cap was made of thread.  It seems a very strange choice, especially given the availability of human hair wigs in the period.  While I can’t know for sure, I do have an idea. Could it be that the hair cap was a more affordable version of a wig? The cap’s construction is simpler than that of a wig, which involved extensive heating, curling, and stitching to create. Wig-makers were also highly skilled at their craft, allowing them to charge a premium. The simple construction and materials of the hair cap might have made it a cheaper option for a budget-conscious woman.

A final diagram illustrates the fascinating construction of the false hair cap. Click on the image for a closer view and for an examination of the strange "pillars" of thread around which each ringlet is built.

The mystery of the false hair cap continues. Made of thread rather than hair and used to save women from the public embarrassment of hair loss, the false hair cap has spawned more theories and questions than it has answered.  What it does do, however, is provide a fascinating window into the truly obsessive world of 19th-century women’s hair anxiety. So the next time you find yourself in a drug store near the hair dye and Rogaine, remember: as crazy as we all can get about our appearances, we inherited it from our cultural ancestors.

Shoshana Resnikoff is a second-year Lois F. McNeil Fellow in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.  She is writing her thesis on the uniforms worn by the Navy WAVES, the first women to serve in the Navy during World War II.  She likes baking, Theodore Roosevelt, and 20th-century craft movements, and is pleased to say that despite the pressures of being a student at Winterthur, she still has a full head of very curly hair.
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